Ros Eyben makes retirement look terribly exhausting. No sooner had I reviewed her book on feminists in development organizations than another appeared. This one is a little (170 page) gem. International Aid and the Making of a Better World interweaves her own life story with the evolution of the aid system, in which she is both a participant and a ferocious critic.
And although it recounts her battles and probably takes down her enemies in the traditional style of a political autobiography, this book takes real risks in ‘connecting the personal to the system’, charting her course from posh ‘aid wife’ complaining about the servants in her letters home, to born-again feminist and career aid worker (rising to be DFID’s chief social development adviser in the 1990s). From there, with growing disillusionment with the aid system, she headed for IDS and now so-called ‘retirement’.
The personal account is riveting – pieced together from letters, journals, and illustrated with grainy black and white photos of parties on the verandah in Zaire, all discussed with an unflinching gaze that examines both her failings and triumphs.
Just as her life evolves, so does the aid system within which she is increasingly embedded, and the book provides an excellent introduction to the shifting fashions and priorities as aid goes from Cold War to neoliberal peace, with excursions into civil society, rights, resilience, results and any number of other fuzzwords. All illustrated with telling vignettes of field visits and project disasters, and some brilliant background to the structure of the aid industry. Take this on ‘what is a project’:
‘The project is a device that development agencies use to organise complex reality into a manageable, bounded unit. In 1966, Hirschman referred to them as ‘privileged particles of the development process’. Back then, in addition to providing Third World governments with ‘manpower’ for health, education and other services along with some budget support, international aid provided infrastructure projectised in the same manner as the construction of roads, bridges,etc. back home. In theory, recipient governments presented fully designed projects for funding and the aid agency then appraised their viability and relevance. In practice, aid agencies, equipped with budgets that had to be spent in a timely manner, actively encouraged recipients to think of useful schemes that fitted the project paradigm. A project was seen as a capital investment, which was then (in principle, often not in practice) maintained by the recipient government. Early projects produced something concrete – such as a power station or hospital – but by the 1970s the United Nations specialised agencies were using the project model for an expanded range of objectives, such as the ILO Youth Training Centres Project that gave me my first job as a development professional. Although by then aid agencies perceived development as more complicated than initially thought and needing more than bridges and roads, the project had become the default aid instrument. It produced the patent absurdity of a single management structure, budget and determined time frame for ambitious and nebulous concepts such as meeting basic needs through integrated rural development. Yet, external support to development at the local level without projects had become inconceivable. Development professionals, including anthropologists like me, had to work within this framework.’
She revels in exploring the dilemmas and quandaries (the notorious Nairobi swimming pool is a case study, and even warrants a photo).
From the upper echelons of DFID Central, she headed for its office in Bolivia and then off into academia, where she charted the double life (‘subversive accommodation’) of aid workers, riding the waves of chaos and complexity, and then reporting back to HQ on the basis of nice linear plans and logframes (of which she was an initial proponent). She led the criticism of the ‘results agenda’ (even if she did come off worse in a head to head with DFID measurement gurus).
Her big conclusion from her life in aid is the importance of ‘reflexivity’, a process of those in aid agencies recognizing their own power and impact on those around them and cultivating ‘a process of deliberately making myself feel insecure about how I understand, speak about and behave in relationships with others.’
Reflexive practice, she argues, begins with looking in the mirror, but also ‘cultivating marginality’ – stay on the outside of the power structures within the aid system, seeking ‘the gift of being on the edge’. Focus on history and relationships, not ‘best practice’. Learn through dialogue and at all times, everywhere ‘become aware of power.’
She remains painfully honest ‘I am still struggling to understand my own motives and why for so long I have wanted to do good somewhere else that at home.’
A fantastic book.